Saturday, June 25, 2011


Taiwanese blogger jailed over critical restaurant review in Taichung

6/25/2011 Taiwan Explorer

One of the hottest stories in Taiwan these days is the story of a female blogger from Taichung, who wrote a blog post, where she criticized a restaurant and the owner sued her and won the case. The judge sentenced her to a 30 days detention, which were changed to 2 years probation and a heavy fine of 200.000 NTD (nearly 5000 Euros). Of course most of the English speaking blogosphere in Taiwan is abuzz and appalled and whatnot (without even reading the original text in Chinese), the so often linked Taipei Times headline was enough for them to pass a quick judgement, that this is "outrageous and disgraceful and against freedom of speech". But guess what, according to the official documents the conviction dates back to Feburary 2011 - the story is out now, because she appealed the verdict, but the judge did not reverse his original ruling. Let me mention some of the bloggers who sloppily wrote about poorly researched this story: OzSoapbox merely quotes the misleading Taipei Times article and adds his 1 cent. Michael Turton does the same and adds his famous sarcasm. James, the writing baron, has completely missed the point. Echo Taiwan is talking about "not being allowed to voice own judgement", fully missing the point as well.

Let me be clear, before I continue: I disagree with the sentence, I personally do not believe that she should be jailed for what she wrote. But the story is much more complex than it appears. And unlike other bloggers, I try my best to understand what has happened that caused her to write that blog post and what was the restaurant owner's reason to sue her and what was the judge's reason to punish her. Of course my Chinese is not so good to do the research by myself, so I asked my wife to help me.

There are many more, who talked about this story recently, but nobody has really read anything besides the poor Taipei Times article. I wonder why. I wonder why are some bloggers such sheep and don't do their own research? I always want to go to the root of the cause, not merely satisfy myself with what I see on the surface and follow the trend. And that's one of the points of this whole case as well: Poor writing, which started with the woman's blog post, the Taiwanese media, the Taipei Times and eventually some English speaking bloggers. They should not be taken seriously (it's a joke, if you ask me).

Here's an excerpt from the Taipei Times article:

Blogger jailed over critical restaurant review

OBJECTIVITY:The judge said the blogger should not have criticized the restaurant’s food as ‘too salty’ in general, because she had eaten dried noodles and two side dishes

[...] After visiting a Taichung beef noodle restaurant in July 2008, where she had dried noodles and side dishes, Liu wrote that the restaurant served food that was too salty, the place was unsanitary because there were cockroaches and that the owner was a “bully” because he let customers park their cars haphazardly, leading to traffic jams. [...] (read the whole one here)

The parts quoted above look like sensationalist journalism to me, if that's so, judge for yourself. If you dig through the Taiwanese media, that did not distort this story, you will find these snippets of truth:

- She was convicted in February 2011, appealed the verdict, but still lost the case
- She has never mentioned any noodles in her post, she said they were salty in court
- She once had noodles there in '08, but the incident in the post happened in '09
- She was angry, because of false parking in front of shop and she had a valid point
- She did not write a restaurant review, she was offended and wanted to fight back
- She claimed that the owner and a customer repeatedly called her "crazy old woman"
- Colleague's testimony in court exposed her as a liar, but the most important thing, that lead to her conviction were her unsubstantiated claims about the sanitary condition
- The English and Taiwanese news distorted the case most likely to get more attention

Let us now see the original post in Chinese and my wife's comments and translation below. She found it in the Taiwanese blogosphere, but the original blog post is already deleted, however her blog is still online, but empty:

"話說有一天我站在..[Shop name]川味牛肉麵店..門口左邊的白色車子旁
車主;這條不是單行道 (我在這一年都是雙向通車..哪來單行道..他是交通部嗎..馬上改單行道..切)
車主;干你什麼事.. ( 切..叫拖吊車來真的就是你家的事啦)
我;我也住裡面..這樣停行嗎....( 外國人不是最守規矩嗎..至少我認識的外國人很守法)
還有...我以前有去那家惡霸店家..[Shop name]川味牛肉麵..吃過東西

This is my wife's summary and explanation of the first part:

The text she wrote was caused by a parking issue and the argument she had about it. This is what happened: She lived in the same neighborhood where the restaurant is located. One day she passed by the place and saw two cars parked side by side blocking the whole street. She felt it's not right, because it's against the regulation. She went to the car, that blocked the traffic and asked the owner not to park that way. He did not want to comply and she said that she will tell the police and they will pull his car away. The loud argument sparked the interest of the restaurant owner, who came out and asked why is she bothered by that. Another person, a foreigner, came out as well and added, that it's no problem to park like that. She noted, that she is surprised of his remark, because she thought that foreigners ("at least the ones she knew"), usually obey the law. The car and the restaurant owner repeatedly called her a "crazy old woman" (瘋婆子), clearly offending her. They also didn't want to move away from the car, because they feared she will really call the police. She then noted in her post, that "of course she wasn't bothered by the car, but she doesn't like people, who make the traffic worse in the neighborhood.

And the smaller last paragraph is the one, that brought her the trouble (lit. translation):

"In addition... before I went to that evil tyrant's shop [Shop name] Szichuan flavored beef noodle... to eat something...really... very hard to eat.
But... it's secondary, whether the things taste good or not, their shop is also not sanitary... has cockroaches..
Not only because of this event I say it..
Before I didn't write a food review on my blog, just because it's very hard to eat and not sanitary....

Evil tyrant wait... I will call the tow truck every day... help you clear the door... wait oh

...state treasury... money is coming!"

A regular customer of that shop found the post she wrote and told it to the owner, who then decided to sue her for defamation. The incident and the blog post are from August 2009, but the woman was sued in 2010 and the trial ended this February. She appealed the verdict and few additional colleagues were called to testify and other blogs, that wrote about the shop were reviewed. Even government officials checked the restaurant's condition and did not find anything unsanitary, let alone any cockroaches. And when her colleagues were called to court and testified, one of them said, that the woman once recommended the restaurant to her by saying "you can go there, the place is a bit dirty, but the taste is ok." However, this case was never about the food, it was about her claims that the place was unsanitary (the cockroaches) and her lack of proof (if she had photos, she would've won the case). But not only that, based on the evidence and the testimonials, the judge found out that she wrote that post only to harm the restaurant's reputation and insult the owner with unsupported claims (no evidence, that there were cockroaches or that she really couldn't eat the food).

You have to know that Taiwan is a nation of bloggers and there are thousands of blogs writing food reviews every day. People in Taiwan, before they go to a restaurant, always google reviews of bloggers. My wife does the same, my Taiwanese friends, too. Seeing people taking photos in restaurants and shops is as normal as the blue sky on a summer day. Taiwanese bloggers have the power to destroy a restaurant or make it popular, no joke. I have never seen such powerful bloggers like here and big money is made, in Taiwan a "celebrity blogger" really is a celebrity, not just a wannabe like in many other countries. Do you remember the famous blogger honeyqueen, who faked reviews and got caught? She earned 1000 USD for one blog review! And there are bloggers here, who earn triple of that amount for one blog post. The English speaking bloggers here (including myself) can only dream about it. So please remember this, before you judge this case too fast, Taiwan's blogosphere is most likely very different than the one in your country.

Another thing to take in consideration here is Republic of China's defamation laws, that are most likely different than in your country. The judge said in his final verdict, that "according to the constitution, people have the freedom of speech, but the constitution only protects the freedom of speech based on the fact and a reasonable comment." That means that you have the freedom to insult someone, but they have they also have the right to sue you.

Please read the interpretation of the Criminal Code (in English) here>>

And the third thing are the cultural particularities. Why the judge leaned to the conviction might lay in the fact, that it is not good in Taiwanese culture to criticize so directly (at least that's what my wife initially thought and many Taiwanese netizens as well). The Confucian mindset is very well preserved in the older generation, the concept of "losing face" (丢脸) is still very important to some people, especially men. What sometimes seems a silly thing to us Westerners, is taken very seriously by some Taiwanese people - keep in mind, that there is not an universal idea of what defamation is. Interestingly the reactions in the Taiwanese online community were very mixed (unlike in the English speaking one). Many said that it might not be good to choose the words she used and some noted, that they will need to be careful about how they phrase things on their blogs. Of course there were some, who completely disagreed with the judge's conviction.

Please read some reactions of Taiwanese netizens on Plurk (in Chinese) here>>

This type of things are not rare in many parts of the world. Do you remember the Taiwanese girl, a student, who was deported from USA, because she wrote a silly comment on Facebook? Yeah, it happens in Taiwan, it's a crazy conviction, but it doesn't mean that Taiwan is full of these things and people are afraid to speak their mind and write critical reviews - to the contrary. Taiwan's online community is one of the most vibrant in the world, discussions are deep and blunt, reviews are tough and thorough. Do not assume more based on this case than what it is: A exceptionally crazy conviction, that happens once in few years.

There are of course cases, where the bloggers don't get convicted for speaking their mind. My wife told me about the following case, where the charges were dismissed: There was a "Hello Kitty restaurant" in Chungli, a girl visited it and wrote about their poor service and bad food (read it here in Chinese). The owner found the post and commented angrily, complaining that she shouldn't take photos and write the things she wrote. She apologized and adjusted the post, but he still sued her. The judge dismissed the case, because the restaurant used the Hello Kitty theme without having the license from Sanrio (the company that owns Hello Kitty) and because the girl just stated her opinion and did not intend to libel the restaurant (the words she used were not offensive). The owner also commented on all other blogs, that wrote reviews about his restaurant and threatened them with law suits. He soon had to close down his restaurant, because nobody wanted to visit it after his erratic behavior. And there are many similar cases, where restaurants sue, but do not win the case (after all, this is not South Korea or USA).

I love to write restaurant reviews and I love to recommend places to eat all over Taipei, but I always try my best to use proper words, when I don't like something. After all, it's someone's livelihood I am writing about and sometimes visiting a place once and having a bad experience doesn't mean the place is always bad and has bad service all the time. We should always be careful as bloggers what we say and how we say it and it doesn't mean we need to censor ourselves. Write the same things about a restaurant that you would say them in real to the owner's face or in public. After all, the internet is a kind of a virtual public space and your words matter, people take them as reference. Freedom of speech is one of the most valuable achievements of our society, but that doesn't mean we have the freedom to intentionally harm someone's reputation, just because we are angry at them.

With all that said, I still think the blogger didn't deserve to be jailed, an apology and a (smaller) fine would have sufficed, if the restaurant really lost business because of her post. But I hope that my post helped you to understand the complexity of the issue a little better. I do not want people to ridicule Taiwan because of this news distorted by the media. The story already went viral and some things people say are pure fiction. Step off your high horse and switch on your brain: Things are not always as simple as they seem to you.

I also asked my wife to Google the shop and we found out, that it's a famous restaurant established over 20 years ago and most reviews are very good. From her impression, she feels that the owner really cares for his reputation, that's why he went to court. If you're interested to read some reviews of the shop and see how it looks, please check out these Taiwanese blog posts:

Of course the story was also all over Twitter. Read what some people, who had no idea what really happened, wrote in their short comments (the silliest are underlined):

Results for taiwan blogger jailed

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[Updated on 27. June based on Taiwan Echo's comment, thank you]